Historian commends ‘humanities CPR’

Prof Barbara Brookes
Prof Barbara Brookes
University humanities departments are under pressure in several countries, but humanities education is crucial to communicate more effectively and  understand life more deeply, an historian says.

Prof Barbara Brookes, of the University of Otago,  strongly defended the benefits of studying humanities in a recent  university graduation address and  commented in an interview.

Words were "the essential tools of our business" and "their power can never be underestimated", Prof Brookes said.

"Words on paper, or on screen, have the power to expose corruption and to bring down governments."

Studying humanities also fostered effective communication, including between different cultures, and using different languages, she said.

This study also encouraged what she termed "humanities CPR" — not cardiopulmonary resuscitation — but "courage, passion and relationships".

Courage was the "quality that allows us to challenge orthodoxies"In 1976, when she had undertaken her Otago University BA (Hons) dissertation on abortion in the 1930s, some people had "doubted"  this was "a real topic for historical inquiry".

In her research, she  talked to women about their fear of getting pregnant during the Great Depression, when they "couldn’t afford another mouth to feed".

She found this a "revelation", and, as one of the "privileged pill-taking generation", was fascinated to learn  women would previously resort to "gin and a hot bath", drinking "unknown potions", and other measures to interfere in pregnancy and to limit their families.

She had wanted to write this "unknown and secret history" and developed a continuing passion for women’s history, tackling further research in the United States.

Despite "lots of agonies and disappointments on the way", her studies eventually led to her 1988 book "Abortion in England, 1900-1988".

Last  October, she was invited to speak at a conference of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in London, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Abortion Act;  her book was on display.

The definition of humanity was "human beings collectively" and it was "that collectivity, those relationships", which humanities subjects "explore, critique, and celebrate".

The world needed the humanities CPR, the "courage, passion and commitment to exploring relationships, to critically assess the past, to develop new strategies for the future, and to provoke, enchant and delight us with fiction, poetry and music".

john.gibb@odt.co.nz

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